Michigan Judge Upholds Voter-Approved Grand Rapids Marijuana Decriminalization Law

Kent County judge rules that possession of small amounts of marijuana in Grand Rapids should result in a civil infraction as voters decided in November 2012
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — In a double-win for marijuana reform activists in Michigan, a Kent County judge ruled Monday that Grand Rapids’ voter-approved marijuana decriminalization measure is valid under state law, while simultaneously dismissing the County Prosecutor’s attempts to nullify the referendum.

On November 6, 2012 Grand Rapids voters approved a proposal to amend the Grand Rapids city charter so people possessing or using marijuana no longer would be subject to a misdemeanor offense, passing by roughly 60 percent approval. Grand Rapids was one of five Michigan cities to pass similar measures in the November elections.

The amendment to the city charter should have taken effect on December 6, but County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth sued Grand Rapids over the legality of the amendment in a lawsuit filed in Kent County Circuit Court, arguing that the amendment interferes with his responsibilities as county prosecutor while conflicting with Michigan’s state marijuana laws.
The lawsuit contends that a city like Grand Rapids does not have the authority to create a civil infraction “for an act (like marijuana possession or use) where a civil infraction is clearly forbidden” by state law. Forsyth cited a recent court ruling regarding medical marijuana in Wyoming as evidence of a “general rule that a city cannot enact an ordinance that conflicts with state law.”

In contrast, Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish argued that failing to allow the decriminalization amendment to take effect “would undermine voter confidence in the processes by which citizens exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote.”

Judge Paul Sullivan dismissed Forsyth’s lawsuit on Monday, ruling that the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Grand Rapids should result in a civil infraction as voters decided in the 2012 elections.

“The voters of Grand Rapids had the power to amend the city charter and plaintiff has failed to show that any section of the charter amendment necessarily conflicts with state law,” Judge Sullivan wrote in his decision. “It is still a crime for one to possess, control, use or give away marijuana in Grand Rapids. The charter amendment merely creates a civil infraction in the city and directs the city’s police resources away from some of these laws.”
Sullivan added that although the Grand Rapids police department — who began writing citations for marijuana violations under the amendment on May 1 — are bound by the amendment, other law enforcement agencies, such as the Michigan State Police, are not.

“Those who violate state and/or federal laws relating to marijuana still risk the possibility of criminal prosecution for violation of the laws, even within the confines of the city of Grand Rapids,” Sullivan wrote.

Under present state law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year incarceration and a maximum fine of $2,000, but an effort is underway at the state legislature to change that.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat who represents Ann Arbor — one of the first cities in the state to decriminalize marijuana, doing so in 1974 — introduced a bill in April that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana state-wide.

Irwin’s bill, House Bill 4623, would make the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a fine. The fines would be scaled based on prior marijuana possession offenses.  First time offenders would be fined $25, second offenses would be subject to a $50 fine, and any subsequent offenses would result in a $100 fine.

The bill is also co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Callton, who recently introduced legislation to allow medical marijuana dispensaries as part of the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

The measure has been referred to the House Committee on Judiciary, but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

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